Thursday, August 16, 2012

Anger Management and Black Poetry

Among other differences, it's hard not to notice that you're more likely to encounter traces of anger and defiance in poetry at spoken word sessions as opposed to the poems that appear in magazines and volumes of poetry. It's not that you don't see anger in printed poems. You do. However, that anger does not come as often, readily, and unruly as what you come across at performances.

Of course, there's a class divide, by and large, when we're discussing spoken word poetry vs. "literary" print-based poetry for lack of a better phrase. The leading more recognized print-based poets are more firmly middle class (and above) than many prominent spoken word artists. Some of the anger that we hear in spoken word is the result of people speaking out bitterly against where they are situated. There's also a stronger imperative to raise consciousness and speak out against certain injustices in spoken world realms.    

The literary poets I witness reading their poems from books at gatherings on university campuses often have more measured and reserved tones than the poets I see at the night clubs and other spoken word sets in the city. The spoken word poets and print-based poets in my region tend to steer clear of each other. Their tones are often distant as well.

Also, since spoken word, slam, and performance poets are more likely to transition into print-based poets, I wonder: is the process of becoming a professional poet a form of anger management? Perhaps all pursuits of formal education (and credentialing) involve processes of regulating the intensity and unruliness of some ideas and practices. Academic units are, after all, referred to as "disciplines." To become a professional or credentialed member of any field requires becoming or, at some point, getting disciplined.  

One of the largest, most recognizable bodies of African American poetry that contained anger on the printed page emerged during the black arts era. The poets of that time period had made performance, politics, and the spoken words of black folks central to their philosophies of art and their aesthetics. It's telling that they had elevated John Coltrane and Malcolm X as central models--two figures whose works were filled with intensity in ways that many often described as angry.

Some years ago, Tyehimba Jess published this volume Leadbelly about the legendary folk singer. The angry tones throughout Jess's book are prominent and memorable. In the book's first poem "leadbelly's lessons," a drunk white man informs the 12-year-old Leadbelly that "nigger, someday i’m gonna kill you." The young musician reflects on the harsh, racist treatment and says, "it was there, alone, / in the dark, darkness of me / that i first learned the ways /of pure white envy."

Jess's "leadbelly's lessons" sets the tone for a book that has an uncommon level of anger, especially for an award-winning volume of poetry in this day and age. The presence of that tone in Jess's work is perhaps less surprising when we consider that he was an experienced slam poet years before earning his MFA.                 

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